Dymaxion Response Surface

“Dymaxion” is Bucky Fuller’s portmanteau implying “dynamic-maximum-tension”, referring to the achievement of nearly optimal designs (whether by mindless design by Darwinian evolution, or by intelligent design by human innovators). A “response surface” is a mathematical approach for improving on brute force experiment design so that fewer experiments are needed to provide the desired statistical power.

“Free will” is, for me, something like (perhaps exactly like) Daniel Dennett’s possibility generator/selector – a subset of brain activity that puts itself in other peoples’ shoes, imagines various possible scenarios, and models, likely via something akin to Bayesian inference, possible outcomes, submitting the results of these to a morally answerable chooser that ultimately determines the constellations of action potentials in neurons that produces our behaviors (see his Consciousness Explained and From Bacteria to Bach and Back). Because this process essentially conducts a galaxy of thought experiments, it seems likely that evolution will have stumbled across something akin to response surfaces in order to get the most statistical power out of available, limited, inferential resources.

Perhaps the above is obvious to the cool kids of cognitive science, and the experiments have already been done, making this post superfluous to said folks. But in my cognitive science reading, not exhaustive and mostly in popular books rather than the scientific literature, I haven’t seen this potential aspect of free will described in this way. Cognitive science has come up with some excellent experimental approaches that are helping to tease out fundamental neural processes, both individual and collective, so I wonder if there is already some way we can look for some signature of brain activity that “looks like” a response surface. Maybe a data science initiative that scans through terabytes of raw data obtained from various high throughput studies. I realize what I’m suggesting here a vague. I am but a painter preparing a canvas by applying a wash and daubing in some unresolved blotches of background, then stepping back and taking in what I’ve done before (someone else goes about) starting in on the details.

First you might need to determine what the relevant signatures of possibility generation and behavior choice look like (combining EEGs, button pressing, electrophysiology, opto-neuronics, the whole panoply of cogsci experimental techniques). Then you might tax those systems by inventing scenarios where there are increasing numbers or complexity of models that would need to be “run” by the possibility generator, less time to make decisions, different types of threats or rewards sponsoring the decisions, and probably a bunch of other factors that would occur to a working cognitive scientist. One complication is that if a dymaxion response surface is already built in as a universal Good Trick, all you will see is that. Possibly, novel types of scenarios require the brain to learn how to develop the response surface, so if you could watch that process occur and track it to its endpoint, you might get a picture of what a response surface signature looks like independent of the learning process and then look for those features under more routine decision making. Clustering algorithms might “naturally” collect sheafs of responses into bins that end up being the representation of what we are looking for. What would this buy us? Another step towards turning what seems to some people like an insoluble mystery into a set of puzzles that can be solved.

Why Blog?

Why do I blog? I mostly dislike social media, so you’d think I wouldn’t. I was briefly on Facebook, but they kept imposing deal-breakers until I quit. I adopted G+ early and rather liked it – asocial networking, perhaps. I even became micro-famous there, attracting around 100,000 (mostly bot?) followers, about 100 who would +1 some of my screenshots of rocket launches, and maybe a few dozen who would +1 my photos of (mostly) sporophytes. We would sometimes engage in multi-blurb post-inspired conversations. This was all I needed: a few +1s and a bit of blather.

Unfortunately, Google Plus kind of wished it was Facebook, and kept damaging the user experience, simultaneously committing fewer resources and hoping for a miracle. Finally, by leaving some security holes open and awaiting exploits, they attracted the attack they had been hoping for, giving them pseudo-reasons to shut down the public side of the service (this paranoid just-so story is pure speculation). Since then, I haven’t really participated in social media for the purpose of being social. I’ve maintained my LinkedIn existence, wondering if I will ever figure out what to do there. I do read some blogs, but don’t comment any more. When I did comment, I found it not worth the time and emotional energy to engage in the inevitable dispute, what with needing to utilize factual information and logical reasoning rather than simply responding in-kind to emotional reactions. If I am going to opine responsibly, I will do it on my own terms and in my own context. A point in favor of, or anti-against, me blogging.

If my desultory internet research is worth anything, blogs are on the decline, so blogging may be somewhat self-defeating. Nevertheless, I do have an agenda, and I do feel the need to express myself and receive feedback for that expression. Additionally, writing is a way to “find out what I really think”. Feedback or not, capable self-expression seems to require that the expressor have an audience in mind while they are expressing. For me, this means you. Other than a few friends whom I know have read at least some of my posts, my audience is unknown to me, thus I call you my “’imaginary real” audience. I do love seeing the occasional comment, but my analytics plug-in supplies about half of what I socially “need” to feel that I am participating, in the sense that I am at least motivated to complete a page a week of honed prose (with occasional poem). So, at worst, blogging is simply a tool, and you, my imaginary real audience, mere “prop(s) to occupy my time” (that really would be the worst, so I hope it doesn’t come to that! Objectifying persons is abhorrent!). Another point, definitely in favor of, me blogging.

If I keep it up for a year, I will have 52 pages of material, much of it containing sub-topics that could themselves be expanded into posts. At first, I was planning to blog once a month, thinking “I don’t really have the time”, but that seems insufficient, so I began posting my four-months’-worth of drafts weekly. I find that as I hone a post, I get ideas for new ones and sometimes quickly save just a title plus a sentence or two. Almost every day I refine existing drafts and/or create new ones. I try to keep 3 or 4 drafts scheduled in advance, and am trying to push that number upwards while adding to the draft pool. I’m thinking of going bi-weekly, not by just doubling my output but somehow incorporating additional cyberstuff. This blogging thing sort of feeds on itself. If I can keep my time investment low – daily practice makes me feel more efficient – I’ll be doing a lot of satisfying writing, a third point in favor of switching to a new phase in my life: me blogging.

Rare Treat

In general I try to minimize (to the extent that I can stand it) the amount of meat I consume, mostly poultry and fish (often duck and salmon, the other red meats!). However, from late December through late January, I let myself go. Dining out (well, back in the day; we have been doing takeout from, say, Clark Burger, Fortunato Brothers, or Villagio and we are trying out a weekly CSR, Larder) or cooking in.

I am an experienced enough cook that a recipe for something I’ve cooked already a few times is more a reminder of ingredients, proportions and temperatures, rather than an algorithm. I have adopted my own versions of various techniques that suit how I work and think. For example, if a recipe wants me to render some bacon for its fat, optionally leaving the meat in to flavor the sauce/stew/whatever, instead I slow-cook the bacon, separating the toothsome solid recreation sticks from the unctuous glycerine mouth liner. I then use some of the fat for the frying, and dice some of the bacon into tiny bits if I was supposed to leave it in along with the rendered grease. There is plenty of bacon and its grease left for other purposes, often involving pancakes, potatoes, and/or eggs. If you are concerned about heart disease at this point, please re-read the title of this post, and know that I also follow a somewhat strenuous workout regimen.

For further insight into how I work and think, let me tell you that I recently made an excellent lentil soup. If you were to ask me for the recipe I would tell you: First make a bunch of barbecued chicken, and have some bacon and bacon grease on hand (the remainder of the recipe is left as an exercise for the student).

Here is a slow-cooked bacon photoessay that I imagine speaks for itself (er, except note that temperature is in Liberian units).

Experimentum Periculosum

Life is short, but art endures; opportunity is fleeting, experimentation perilous, and judgement difficult.

—The Ancients

I am a privileged individual. A straight white male US citizen, I “play the game” on the easiest possible setting. I own a house in Baltimore, half of another house in the small Oregon town that friendliness built, and have spent a couple of years renting an apartment in Germany while working at a research institute. I barely consider prices when I shop, although if the grocery bill is more than sixty or seventy euros/dollars I will study the receipt. I mostly buy only necessities such as food, clothing, and dwelling needs, being easily amused by simple entertainments. My luxuries are essentially reading material, streaming, a few beers, caffeinated beverages, pastries (Nusskrantz! süss Nusskranz!), hiking and biking. Every few years my wife and I splurge on travel. I like to cook and to dine out.

Being a scientist is a privilege itself (although I am a very applied one who doesn’t publish enough). My particular application is “algae farming” – to me an obvious application for recycling agriculture nutrients and carbon, when considered from a hard science, hard economics perspective. The upshot from my experience is that 99% of what you may have heard about how algae can save the world is bullshit. The saving-the-world part is actually true, if you go beyond the hype of tennis shoes made from algae plastic! algae walls in skyscrapers! biodiesel from algae! And the like. My concern is not how to make large profits from growing small amounts of algae, but how build tens of millions of hectares of algae farms that happen to produce nonspecific commodity biomass as a byproduct of nutrient recycling. How can we pay for growing all that slime seeing as how there’s no way to make a profit from it in the current so-called free market? I say “so-called” because today’s “free market” only exists as a tissue of market failures when accounting for the environmental costs of production and consumption. We privatize profits but socialize costs, ironic in that so many “anti-environmentalist” “free-marketeers” so “hate” the socialism from which they derive their “wealth” and “liberty”.

Unlike most privileged people I am aware of, I’m actually spending (or perhaps it is investing, or wasting) my privilege trying various things to improve the world situation. Much of my (perilous) experimentation involves simply trying to find an employed position from which I can help guide large scale physical projects. My biggest problem is that administration and project management are not among my core competencies. I’m socially awkward and anxious, although I can hide or endure these failings for a while. I feel something like guilt when I try to manipulate or glad-hand people. Even when I pull off a successful stunt, rather than becoming invigorated from the positive feedback, I recoil, taking weeks or months to recover. Speaking of irony, I actually admire and even envy successful business people and managers. I don’t actually believe manipulating (or is that “guiding” or “helping”?) or gladhanding (“being gregarious”, “socializing”?) is wrong, I just can only barely and briefly do it. While I’ve had successes, I never quite capitalize on my fleeting opportunities, having great difficulty judging what to do next. Not just in my professional choices. I got in on the (failed) Amiga computer, the (failed) Saturn car, and the (failed) G+ social media platform. What I favor, most people don’t. Still, I am sure I am right with algae farming and will in my short life persist in developing it, exploiting occasional opportunities to experiment, overcoming as many difficulties as I can.